New York

Anri Sala

Toward the beginning of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction film Stalker (1979), three men, including the eponymous guide, stand at the edge of the “zone,” a mysterious off-limits realm said to contain a room where one’s innermost wishes may be granted. As the camera peers through a burned-out military vehicle at the apprehensive trio, framed in silhouette from behind, a short monologue ensues regarding what they might encounter beyond. A rupture between sight and sound occurs as one man looks back at the camera just as another begins to speak, creating an uneasy pairing of portent and disorientation that overturns expectations of conventional narrative and point of view. As one entered Anri Sala’s Purchase Not By Moonlight, 2008, a similar sense of crossing into the uncanny pervaded.

Envisioned as a single installation of four videos and two sculptures, the show incorporated older works alongside more recent ones, all of which were timed to play in turn, propelling viewers through a precisely choreographed sequence. Moreover, three snare drums, titled Doldrums, 2008, were wired to respond to low frequencies in each video’s sound track: Drumsticks resting atop each tapped out a kinetic parallel to whichever video was playing. Phantomlike and absurdist, the ripple of the drums seemed to intimate that the next part of the story could unfold at any moment.

Projected directly opposite the drums, Làk-kat, 2004, contrasts a close-up of moths clinging to a fluorescent light fixture with dimly lit interior shots of three young African boys repeating verbal prompts delivered by an elder man off-screen. Subtitles reveal the recital to be a succession of semantic variations of black and white, dark and light in the Senegalese language Wolof. From “big white hope” and “pale, pale, pale” to “the darkest thing,” the litany of phrases is experienced in stark gestural terms as the boys dutifully mimic the man. The highly charged “làk-kat” (“gibberish”) of the performance reflects a postcolonial linguistic discrepancy, as Wolof has by and large incorporated French words for the spectrum of colors while keeping its own descriptors for the gradations between black and white. Closing with a volley of “white out, white out,” the hands of the instructor flash in and out of view next to the boys. As the camera shifts once more to the throng of moths on the fluorescent light, the juxtaposition epitomizes Sala’s parsing of visual and sonic layers in creating extended metaphors of rupture and estrangement.

Answer Me, 2008, the newest video included, was shot in a defunct US National Security Agency surveillance tower atop the Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), an artificial hill constructed from the rubble of postwar Berlin. The central geodesic dome of the cold-war complex provides the stage for Sala’s abstract portrayal of a couple’s breakup. Seated at a drum kit on one side of the dome, a young man faces the wall and intently plays a rhythm that reverberates up and back to a young woman sitting in a window opposite him. The man repeatedly plays over the woman’s entreaties as her questions—“Answer me, isn’t that so?” and “Isn’t that right?”—are overwhelmed by echoes until she crosses the literal and metaphoric space separating them to simply state “It’s over” during a pause. A mesmerizing complement to Làk-kat, the work was shown on the opposite side of a temporary wall in the middle of the gallery, creating a call-and-response that urged repeated viewings and underscored the allegorical nature of Sala’s work. For, whether responding to the resonance of a modernist ruin or filming an emaciated horse standing on a roadside at night, illuminated and transfixed by the headlights of passing cars—as in Time After Time, 2003, also on view here—gestural emphasis and isolation repeatedly promote a host of associative readings. To borrow a phrase from Tarkovsky, Sala is “sculpting in time.”

Fionn Meade